Chinese who lost money in bank fraud detained for months after protest | World News - Hindustan Times
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Chinese who lost money in bank fraud detained for months after protest

Reuters |
Jun 05, 2024 07:39 AM IST

CHINA-PROTEST-DEPOSITORS:Chinese who lost money in bank fraud detained for months after protest

SHANGHAI - When Ou Yangyun travelled to the Chinese city of Zhengzhou in February to demand recompense after his bank account containing tens of thousands of dollars was frozen, his family expected him to be home two days later to celebrate the Lunar New Year with his five-year-old twins.

Chinese who lost money in bank fraud detained for months after protest
Chinese who lost money in bank fraud detained for months after protest

The small-business owner from Changsha never returned.

Ou, 39, and more than a dozen other victims of one of China's biggest banking scandals had gathered outside a train station in Henan's provincial capital. "Henan banks, return our savings!" they shouted, footage of the protest obtained by Reuters shows.

Dressed in winter coats, the group wandered the streets for about 30 minutes, until one of several unidentified men who had been tailing them shouted "Close the net!" and the protesters were pushed onto a bus and delivered to a police station, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Most were released after several days in detention, during which they were served mouldy food and had limited sleep, but Ou and two other defrauded depositors are still being held by Zhengzhou police, the two people said.

This account, based on a Reuters review of protest footage, previously unreported arrest notices and interviews with five people with direct knowledge of the matter, examines one of the economic protests that have proliferated in China since 2022, a period in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese have lost homes in a property bust and fallen victim to investment scams.

The people spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of official retribution.

The Zhengzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau, Henan province's Department of Public Security, and China's Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment about the detainees and their treatment.

The depositors' plight began about two years ago, when some 600,000 people lost their savings in a $4.2 billion fraud that involved four banks in Henan, sparking worries among some analysts about the stability of rural lenders.

The scandal and resulting protests were not directly caused by China's slowing economy. But the unusually harsh treatment of Ou and the two others may reflect official sensitivities about rising dissent linked to financial distress, two experts told Reuters. 

It is common for people to be detained at economic protests, but they are typically released within days, in contrast to those involved in political protests who are often held for months, said two analysts.

"Four months of detention for something as small as participating in a peaceful protest speaks volumes about the government's inability to handle this slowly growing crisis," said Peter Dahlin, of China-focused human rights monitor Safeguard Defenders.

China Dissent Monitor, a project of Washington-based rights group Freedom House, reported a 127% jump in economic protests to 805 in the fourth quarter of 2023 from a year earlier. These include demonstrations by labourers over unpaid wages; property buyers whose apartments were not built; and investors and retirees fleeced of their money.

With such dissent brewing, "the central government is going to be eager to halt the protests in their tracks to prevent widespread unrest as the economy falters," said Andrew Collier, managing director at Hong Kong-based Orient Capital Research, an independent China-focused research firm.

The four Henan rural banks did not respond to requests for comment. Immediately after the fraud emerged, the lenders posted notices online instructing "customers who are unable to conduct normal business" to register their details.

China's banking regulator, the National Financial Regulatory Administration, did not address Reuters questions about the fraud and subsequent investigations.

Reuters was unable to find previous statements by Chinese authorities about the rise in economic protests, but in some instances officials have contained dissent by promising to address its underlying causes, without directly acknowledging public ire.

MOULDY BUNS, LIMITED SLEEP

After the Zhengzhou protesters were detained, it took 26 hours for police to provide them with food, such as steamed buns, which were mouldy, said two of the people.

Some detainees were woken and interrogated between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., the people said, adding that one was cuffed by their hands and legs.

Regulations covering the pre-arrest treatment of detainees issued by China's State Council specify that they must be provided with food and drink and should not be subject to abuse, among other stipulations. Provinces also set guidelines; Henan requires detainees' food to be safe and hygienic.

While most of the protesters were freed within days, Ou and two others, Shi Jianjian and Hu Weiming, were not heard from for weeks. 

Ou's relatives tried to ascertain his fate, but calls and letters to the Zhengzhou police yielded little. The family "thought Ou was dead", one person told Reuters.

Although Ou was detained on Feb. 9, his police arrest notice is dated March 19. Reuters could not determine the reason for the discrepancy.

Ou and Shi are accused of picking quarrels and provoking trouble, according to their arrest notices, a charge commonly used against protesters in China. Reuters could not determine whether Hu has been charged.

The family of Shi, 50, said they are concerned about his health. He has diabetes and suffered from depression after losing his money, according to a doctor's note dated January 2023.

Hu, also a small-business owner, lost all of her family savings in the scandal, one of the people said, adding that Hu's father had died from illness while she was in detention.

'BLOOD AND SWEAT'

The financial scandal involved what Chinese authorities described as a complex fraud perpetrated across a handful of rural banks when Xincaifu Group, a private firm with stakes in the lenders, colluded with bank staff to siphon off depositors' funds. 

Xincaifu was deregistered in 2022, according to company records, and made no public statements about the scandal at the time.

After mass outcry by the depositors, local governments compensated many customers who had lost small deposits.

Still, more than 1,000 people are yet to be repaid, according to two of the five sources and another person familiar with the matter. 

Many of the depositors, including the Zhengzhou three, are from outside of Henan province and had placed large amounts with the lenders, attracted by favorable interest rates.

After the scandal drew public attention, China's banking regulator said two of its officials were under investigation for unspecified suspected legal violations, without acknowledging any link to the rural banks.

In addition, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in Henan said in July 2022 that a central bank official in Zhengzhou was under investigation for suspected serious disciplinary violation. Reuters was unable to reach the commission via its listed fax or phone number.

In February, the Intermediate People's Court in Zhumadian City, Henan province, said on its official WeChat account that five defendants connected to Xincaifu had been tried and sentenced to 14-1/2 to 16-1/2 years in prison and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For now, the families of Ou, Shi and Hu are waiting to learn whether the trio will be prosecuted, while other depositors continue the fight to recover their savings.

"This is our whole family's money, earned through blood and sweat," said one depositor. "I'm not going to give up."

This article was generated from an automated news agency feed without modifications to text.

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